Everywhere a foreigner

Mathias Maurer

Although it was published more than twenty years ago when the “flood of refugees” was still to come and the nationalist populism and conflict over identity which is currently raging in Europe was not yet evident in all its stridency, this “children’s book”, which is hopefully also read by parents, is still highly relevant today. In a discussion with his ten-year-old daughter Mérièm, Jelloun responds in an age-appropriate way to the questions about xenophobia, racism and discrimination which arose in her after he took her to a demonstration against anti-immigration laws.

Jelloun is convinced that a commitment to the dignity of and appreciation and respect for the other starts with upbringing and education. In the course of the conversation, which he rewrote several times as a result of Mérièm’s friends joining in, it becomes clear that distrust, suspicion and preconceptions towards foreigners is not just a question of perspective – everyone is foreign to everyone else from their own perspective – but also of interpersonal abilities: if I am alien to myself, I need foreigners to stabilise my own identity. Xenophobia says something about ourselves.

Politics and religion like to instrumentalise insecure identities to preserve their power. Turning “foreigners” into scapegoats, we accuse them of all our own failings. They undermine our “lead culture”, take our jobs, housing, school places and women.

Xenophobia has become socially acceptable once again. There is only one remedy for this “disease”: that adults, parents and teachers courageously confront “the fear arising from ignorance and stupidity”, the “ill will”, so that the growing children and young people learn to defend the dignity of and respect for foreigners.

Not infrequently the cause of xenophobia lies in the experience of having had our dignity violated as children which, Erich Fromm says, leads to an authoritarian character. Parents and teachers have a responsibility as role models – not just in the classroom but also on the bus and in the street. For everyone, as Jelloun writes, is a foreigner in most places in the world.